The 11 Need for Speed games you should play, ranked!
The ‘Need for Speed’ series debuted on the relatively obscure console 3DO in 1994 as an ‘exotic cars’ racer, with the player getting to race cars that are most probably unobtainable in real life for an average person. Since then the series went on to become a hit, spawning numerous sequels. However the most unique thing about the series is its boon as well as its curse, it all depends on your perspective. Take a visit to any of the related communities and you will find yourself among a full blown war between numerous split groups of the fanbase. It’s a toxic hellhole where everyone has to take a side and surrender to their tunnel vision.
The ‘boon’ of the series is how it doesn’t have a fixed identity. Some argue that NFS is about street racing and cops, others claim it’s actually about racing exotic unobtainable cars, others argue it should go full sim mode. However, the fact that the series is willing to try new things means you get a varied set of games with unique aspects that makes it stand out. So here are the top games in the series you should definitely try to get a taste of the different eras the series went through. Do note that the ranking in the list, though subjective, is guaranteed to give you a good time! So let’s dive in with a classic at tenth place!
11th PositionNeed for Speed 2 SE (1997)
The Italdesign Nazca C2, a concept car that never became reality, forever stuck in a 1997 game.
This may be an unusual choice from the point of view of classic fans. While NFS1 and 3 were very well received, 2 received lukewarm reviews. Yet that’s what makes it stand out. The game was filled to the brim with truly exotic unobtainable cars with a significant portion of the car list being concept cars. For that reason alone, I would say it’s worth a play but that’s not all! It also has the wackiest track design ever in the series. We are talking about tracks that start from a fairly dry land with twisty tracks that lead into a ruin surrounded by lava! Then there’s the movie studio track with all the surreal set pieces around it. The handling model is…broken to say the least but it’s fun and that’s the most important part.
Also who could forget the amazing original soundtrack that still kicks ass and is beloved by the fans of the classic era! Take a listen to the OST for the racetrack ‘Proving Grounds’. All in all a unique entry in the series.
10th Position Need for Speed The Run (2011)
By now you must have noticed that this list is prioritizing uniqueness over what’s fitting for a racing game! NFS The Run was the last effort by Black Box Studios to get back on track after a series of failed NFS games. They went all in with the budget and made a narrative driven NFS game with QTEs! Sounds bad right!
Well the good outweighs the bad here with the incredible experience the game provides. The whole game is technically one long race (plot wise) from San Francisco to New York where the main character is promised 25 Million for winning it. The plot has a mob chasing after him throughout the game and the quick time events basically feels like Michael Bay directed them. It’s not the best aspect of the game but it sure is memorable! The handling model is really good even though the camera is bad conveying that sense of speed that most NFS games nail. It’s neither too arcadey or simulatory. Black Box Studios always nails the handling afterall. (Let’s pretend Undercover doesn’t exist shall we?)
9th PositionNeed for Speed Underground (2003)
Time to rice my car!
The game that caused the first identity shift in the series, going from exotic cars into import cars street racing culture. It was the game that breathed new life into the series and let an entire generation enticed by ‘The Fast and Furious’ actually delve into the culture without risks and immerse themselves in it. The game had a corny but charming story that serves its purpose of providing just enough motivation for the player to continue playing.
The biggest change was definitely the car customization options. You could rice the car out with vinyls, wide-body kits, neons, and even change performance parts. This aspect played a huge part in the game’s success, to the point that the series’ entire identity took a major change. This was also where the first real split in the fanbase occurred. There formed a division between people who believed that the series should have stuck to its roots while many were appreciative of the change.
8th PositionNeed for Speed Hot Pursuit 2 (2002)
A period piece.
The first NFS game in the sixth generation of consoles, this game was the last exotic era entry in the series. This game was also the first attempt at NFS by the now legendary studio ‘Black Box’, specifically the PS2 version. This game took whatever worked in Hot Pursuit and upped it by a couple of notches, especially the cop chases. They used helicopters that dropped exploding barrels on you! The locations background/themes were beautiful vistas that almost felt surreal.
The game has zero story, just like the other classic games but it had a ton of atmosphere, ninety percent of which is brought in by the amazing soundtrack! Being a 2002 game, as expected it is filled with edgy rock music and wacky songs that oozes raw atmosphere. Take a listen to this! The handling model in the game was also the first one to embrace the grip leaning style of racing that felt arcadey and simcade at the same time. It is truly a gem of a game.
7th PositionNeed for Speed Underground 2 (2004)
♫ Riders on the Storm! Let your childrens play! ♫
The release of GTA3 in the early 00s and its success meant everyone wanted a piece of that. It is only logical that the NFS series was going to go there eventually, and that was 2004’s Underground 2. Now we have a full blown open world called Bayview City whose aesthetics still hold up after all these years despite the dated graphics. The customisation has been expanded and is often still considered one of the best! (Moreso due to the severe lack of street racing games in the market.)
You start in a lame car and have the option to build it up into a monster machine. The handling model is loose but satisfying with an excellent camera implementation for the time. There was a good enough story too to drive the player forward. That sense of progression and roleplay is still unmatched by most other racing games and for this reason, this game is beloved in the community. Riders on the Storm indeed.
6th PositionNeed for Speed Carbon
If NFS was a horror game.
NFS Carbon was a victim of oversaturation and fatigue. By the time this game was released in 2006, people were already tired of the street racing era. The fact that Carbon was Most Wanted 05’ with extra steps didn’t help either. But the extra steps added in are great and the game as a whole peaked the night-time street racing formula. It is now considered one of the best by fans and for good reason.
The story this time is more present even though much shorter than Most Wanted. The car list is a huge improvement from Most Wanted’s rather lackluster selection of cars, with this time the list being divided into three; Exotic, Muscle and Tuner. Each class of car had its own custom soundtrack which was a nice detail. The soundtrack, like most games from the Black Box era, was fantastic with unique bangers like ‘Girl Fight’ that absolutely complements the dark mysterious city of Palmont. The whole city had a haunted mysterious vibe that is further taken to the limits by the innovative race mode called ‘Canyon Duels’, where you tail your opponent close by to gain score and beat his record on top of a canyon with no guard rails. The race mode is often reserved for boss battles, and it WILL make you piss your pants with tension as you drift through the canyons!
The handling model remains mostly the same as Most Wanted’s while adding a layer of complexity to it such as the exaggerated controls of the muscle cars. The map was also very twisty and corner-filled unlike Most Wanted, meaning less speed and more tight grip racing! Overall an absolutely amazing entry that came out at the wrong time!
5th PositionNeed for Speed ProStreet
One phrase. Sense of speed. One aspect every NFS game should nail and oh boy this game did that. The way the camera and actual physics combine to provide the sensation of neck breaking speed is still unmatched by any other game in the series. Other than that this game took us into the realm of legal sanctioned racing around a set track, which many fans were not too keen on back then and the game was panned by them during its release.
Nowadays, a decade later, fans finally realized how well made of a game it was. The customisation was awesome, events were thrilling and the aesthetics were so eye-catching(especially the UI theme). The handling model, debatably a bit too loose, was speed focused. The concept of an arcade racer with a festival-like environment was so good to the point some aspects of it were reused in NFS Heat. ProStreet is another unfortunate game that was released at the wrong time.
5th PositionNeed for Speed Hot Pursuit 2010
Edge of the earth!
It’s back to the roots with this game! Gone are the corny stories and ricing-focused customisation, replaced with stock cars with a mere color change option and an exotic location called Seacrest County! This game feels like the classic NFS with a modern coat of paint. It’s just you and the exotic car driving through exotic locations with no additional distractions like story or customisation. And get this, you can play as a cop this time busting racers! The cop chases in this game are intense as the name implies and the cop gameplay feels badass to play, with us getting to use all kinds of gadgets such as EMPs, Helicopter summoning etc.
As a racer, you have access to gadgets such as the jammer and the turbo. Speaking of the turbo, give a listen to this! Everytime you activate it, you will find yourself ass-clenching for dear life hoping you won’t crash into the traffic. This game is a demonstration of how good sound design can enhance the experience, an aspect often ignored by most games.
The handling saw its first major shift from grip-based to drift-based where you use the brakes to execute an easy drift. While many fans consider this mechanic as not something to be tolerated in an NFS game, the fact that the map is built around the handling model means it’s satisfying to race as an amateur and exhilarating to master it. Easy to play yet hard to master. The debut of the drift-model remains the best implementation of it yet.
3rd Position Need for Speed Rivals
The good kind of edgy.
This game is more of a sequel to Hot Pursuit but this time with a welcome addition: an edgy story. I don’t mean that in a negative way. While the story is edgy, it is intriguing enough to get you to play the game till the end. The story doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, merely told through cutscenes.
The game, like Hot Pursuit, has two careers; Racer and Cop. And this time, due to the story, both careers are intertwined plot-wise. The story is gritty where the Racer side’s protagonist basically creates a cult of racers who believe in their ‘freedom’ to race while endangering others while the Cop career’s protagonist is hellbent on taking them down with lethal force. Two opposing grounds, equally corrupted. The tone of the story is carried onto the game as well, with a harsh but beautiful color pallet and rough environments. The cars are once again composed of exotic vehicles equipped with dangerous devices. The game is Hot Pursuit but better, only held back by its performance issues on PC. A truly underrated gem in the series.
2nd PositionNeed for Speed Most Wanted 05’
THE nfs car!
Do I need to even elaborate on this game? Easily being the most beloved in the whole franchise, MW05’ is such a perfect blend of speed, story and atmosphere. This game is more of a mix of the classic era and street era, with a reduced focus on customisation from the Underground games and more exotic vehicles to choose from. The game takes place is piss flavored daytime (which I absolutely adore), and has long straight highways that let you truly unleash your need for speed. The story was simple yet motivating, just like Rivals, where it doesn’t interrupt the gameplay but merely pushes you to complete it. The perfect racing game story: take down the 15 Black List members.
Of course, I should mention the insane cop chases. The amazing OST by Paul Linford combined with the cop chases is what made this game thrilling. The cop AI still feels impressive and made the game stand out back then. All in all, a racing classic that fans tend to hold on to a bit too dearly, considering how toxic some older fans can be by being stubborn that MW can’t be topped, which leads into my personal top one choice…
1st PositionNeed for Speed Heat
Eye Candy: The Game
NFS Heat is generally agreed to be a great entry into the series after a string of mediocre games. But personally I believe it’s the best NFS has ever been though not flawless. The handling model is often criticized, but as a pure arcade racer unlike the Black Box era, the handling is extremely satisfying and tunable enough to be varied.
The story is good enough. It doesn’t try to be simple or too complex, which I think makes it feels a bit rushed but other than that, it is good enough to provide you with motivation to customize your car and harass the cops. The cop chases in this game, unlike Most Wanted, are designed to make you feel terrified of them. If you were the ‘Terminator’ in MW05’, here you are being chased by multiple terminators. The game has an absolutely amazing ‘Risk vs Reward’ mechanic where you bet your earnings by confronting the cops. This feature alone makes the cops in this game terrifying. The sound design is not only the best in the franchise, it is one of the best sounding games I have ever played. From the tense music as the cops chase you, the screeching sound of their sirens, the growl of your engine swapped vehicle to the small distortion sound effect when you receive damage, it’s perfect.
The sense of speed in this game is amazing though maybe not as good as prostreet, but way more practical as ProStreet did go a bit overboard with the camera effects. Cars truly feel like they are going at the speed it shows on the tach. The customization is the best in the franchise, and finally none of the bodykits look ugly anymore. Palm City is aesthetically beautiful, a total eye candy of a city. The neon lit streets are every ‘Tokyo Drift’ fans’ wet dream and this is probably the only such city in a modern racing game. It’s made even better by modders such as the ‘UNITE’ mod. Props to the devs who designed the breathtaking city.
All these aspects together makes up for whatever issues Heat may have, and for that reason it’s the best NFS released so far.
You may have noticed I haven’t included Unbound in the list, that’s because the game is still in its early stages of its live service and there’s the possibility of more content being dropped. Though it would be disappointing to hear that isn’t the case. From the list, it’s obvious that the NFS series is still standing because it was willing to try new things. People need to be more accepting of change and be willing to take off their nostalgia glasses when trying out new stuff. A multiple decade long series like NFS needs an identity change every now and then or things will stagnate. Embrace change…